Six years ago I got very sick, diverticulitis gone bad, descending sigmoid colon blew up, septicaemia, emergency surgery, cut up my guts, attached a colostomy bag, had that for three months, detached it, sewed me up again, all the illness gone. A couple of follow-on operations and one blood poisoning event from toxic hernia mesh (one of my friends said this was the perfect name for a garage band – Toxic Hernia Mesh), but all gone, basically, gone, unlikely to return (said my eccentric surgeon – are there surgeons who are not eccentric?). Six months out of my life, or into my life.
After the big operation, when I came back down to the Ward from Intensive Care, it came to me that if I’d died on that operating table, the last words I would have heard on this planet would have been these, from the anaesthetist: ‘I’ve just given you something to make you feel more comfortable.’
Like they say, there’s nothing like nearly dying to focus your attention. As my health returned, I worked on building a business that had a DNA about making money, having fun and changing the world – Edgeware Creative Entrepreneurship. I think we’re part of a kind of international project to give capitalism a human face, a pretty big project, maybe an impossible one.
My wife Ludmila left her homeland in 1969, six months after the Warsaw Pact nations invaded with tanks and troops, many of whom didn’t know which country they were actually invading/normalising. They did this partly because the Czechoslovakian First Secretary, Alexander Dubček, had described the reforms he planned as ‘giving socialism a human face.’ What he actually said was, ‘In the service of the people we followed such a policy that socialism would not lose its human face.’ A key reform was the decentralisation of the economy, along with censorship and border reforms.
If we can suppose such a project could exist, of giving capitalism a human face, then I’d like to look at that through three lenses, the three elements of the Edgeware DNA.
In the past few decades, the developed world has seen the rise of myriad experiments in doing commerce as (let’s call it) an ethical practice. There are socially responsible entrepreneurs and employers, and emergent commercial forms that infuse the culture of capitalism with humanist ideals of compassion, stewardship and social responsibility. Think of the Open Source movement. Many of these aren’t new in themselves but as a cluster, a wave, they’re significant. Such things as employee-owned enterprises, ethical investment funds, social enterprises, Fair Trade networks, even ‘venture philanthropy’. There’s a good list at Foursector.org. (http://www.fourthsector.net/learn/sympathetic-patterns) Efforts like these have currency and urgency, and many of them are working.
‘Capitalism with a human face’ makes money, but it makes money differently, with a view of the consequences of its trading, and responsibilities beyond the financial.
A simple story here, one that is echoed throughout our Edgeware experience (some of which we will share in this blog), a story of a new small business in a small Australian town.
Tim is a young man living with a complex set of disabilities. He needs care, support and assistance for daily routines, and he is blessed with a supportive network of family and carers. He is also an entrepreneur, founder of Tim’s Bloomin’ Healthy Seedling Supplies, an organic fruit and vegetable sprouting service.
It is unlikely that Time will ever make a living from his business, but that’s not the point. The money he makes, and the decisions this affords, enable him a degree of self worth and independence that he might otherwise not have. Tim’s business is certainly about making money (that’s what makes it a business, not a hobby) but it’s also about making meaning. And our experience at Edgeware is that creative entrepreneurs are almost always motivated by this too, a need to realise themselves in the world, to make a mark, a difference, to create and build something, perhaps even leave a legacy.
‘Capitalism with a human face’ makes money and meaning at the same time.
I mentioned the idea of a wave sweeping towards socially responsible business, and the changes this brings with it. In my view this is formed and driven by cultural change, the ways we find to be in the world.
A few years ago I got to work for a day with a group of academics from the Kingdom of Bhutan. Among the founding Faculty of the new Royal University of Bhutan, they wanted to grow their capacity in the supervision of postgraduate research. As it happens, the new RUB has a relationship with Queensland University of Technology, which is based in my hometown, Brisbane, and QUT offered them a week of workshops and professional development on postgrad supervision. One day of this was given over to ‘social entrepreneurship’, and since I was on staff and that was known to be my Thing, I was nominated to facilitate the day.
On that day it became very clear that for this group of Bhutanese scholars, the term social entrepreneurship was an oxymoron. That is, they found it inconceivable that someone would set up a business which did not have a sense of social purpose and social responsibility . It seemed to me that these people were born and raised in a culture, with a worldview of compassion of social belonging, that holds the conscious practice of harm unthinkable. Commerce seems to be part of that worldview.
You will have heard of the Bhutanese, probably, from a Buddhist monarchy transitioning in a very balanced way to a modern, globalised world, and the source of the now famous ‘Gross National Happiness’ scale (http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com) , which is designed to complement Gross National Product as a metric for the wellbeing of a country and its people.
For me, the Bhutanese example inspires the question, can a shift in perception and a shift in culture bring about an evolution of capitalism which makes it unthinkable to use commerce as a weapon or a means of harm or disadvantage? Is it possible to build business from its foundation as socially responsible, maybe socially progressive? Can business – as a matter of course – protect and restore damaged systems?
‘Capitalism with a human face’ changes perception, changes culture, and changes the world.
It’s an idea, after all. Six years down the track from my own Grand Opera encounter with mortality, as I work on Edgeware and watch it unfold, I find that I don’t really care if this idea of ‘capitalism with a human face’ is in fact a movement, a wave, to which I might belong. In practice, it’s about making small, achievable steps towards making things better. That’s all I can reasonably do.